Defensive end Michael McCrary, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, outside linebacker Peter Boulware and punt returner Jermaine Lewis appear to be the team's leading candidates to enjoy Pro Bowl recognition.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Rod Woodson also have shots at playing in Honolulu on Feb. 7.
The Ravens' defense features a solid front seven and has been the team's strong suit for much of 1998. It also features one of the league's better, young pass-rushing tandems in McCrary and Boulware, each of whom earned significant recognition a year ago.
McCrary, who led the AFC in sacks for several weeks earlier this year, already has recorded a career-high 14.5 sacks in his sixth season. He trails only former Seattle teammate Michael Sinclair, who leads the conference with 15.
McCrary also ranks second on the Ravens with 89 tackles, 60 solo. Rarely does a defensive lineman rank so highly in tackles on any team.
"I've been thinking about [the Pro Bowl] a lot more lately, more than I normally do. I think I have a fair shot at it. I definitely feel closer to it this year than I did last year," said McCrary, who hopes to be one of four ends chosen -- two starters, two backups.
McCrary probably has to overcome Sinclair and Buffalo's legendary Bruce Smith to gain a starting spot. McCrary was a first alternate last year.
"I get a lot of respect from offensive tackles around the league," McCrary said. "But, looking at what happened to Ray last year, you know that anything can happen."
That would be Ray Lewis, who led the NFL in tackles last year, only to end up disappointed as the first alternate at inside linebacker. Lewis, who leads the Ravens with 128 tackles this year despite missing nearly three games with a dislocated elbow, could end up in the same position again.
Only two inside linebackers are chosen in each conference, and Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland and San Diego's Junior Seau loom ahead of Lewis with longer careers and previous Pro Bowl recognition. The Ravens object to Seau being classified as an inside linebacker, saying that he plays on the outside. Lewis, who replaced the injured Seau in last year's Pro Bowl, may have to settle for being a first alternate.
Boulware, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, appears to be on more solid ground. For one, four outside linebackers will be named. Secondly, Kansas City's Derrick Thomas, a perennial choice, has only four sacks since the season opener and recently served a one-game suspension for his unsportsmanlike conduct in a recent game against Denver.
And Boulware's performance speaks for itself. He is tied for seventh in the AFC with 8.5 sacks, is ranked sixth on the Ravens
with 72 tackles and has played at a consistent level despite a nagging shoulder injury.
"I look at everybody else at my spot, like [Seattle's] Chad Brown, Derrick Thomas, [Jacksonville's] Bryce Paup and [New England's] Chris Slade," Boulware said. "I haven't had any monstrous games, but I'm getting a sack here or there, and I think I've had a better year [than in 1997] as far as being a linebacker. I've played the run better and covered the pass better. This year has been tougher for me. Other teams know what I do."
At cornerback, Woodson already has been to seven Pro Bowls in his 12-year, headed-for-Hall-of-Fame career. There are younger, productive players like New England's Ty Law and Miami's Terrell Buckley -- tied for the AFC lead with eight interceptions -- and Oakland rookie Charles Woodson garnering Pro Bowl consideration. Four cornerbacks will go to Hawaii.
Rod Woodson was as good as anyone in the season's first half, when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns. But Woodson has tailed off in the second half.
Jermaine Lewis, who was voted the Ravens' Player of the Year by members of the local media, is hoping to get to Honolulu with his return skills. Along with Jacksonville's Reggie Barlow, Lewis could make it on the strength of his two returns for touchdowns.
Ogden, who just missed the first game of his three-year career with a severe ankle sprain, started his first Pro Bowl a year ago, along with Jacksonville's Tony Boselli. Four tackles overall will be chosen, and the only question is whether Ogden will start.
"How many guys are better than [Ogden]?" said Ravens offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz. "I could see him and Boselli going [to the Pro Bowl] for the next 10 years. Once you get in the club, you tend to stay there for a while."
NOTE: The entire Ravens roster spent part of yesterday in the community on Christmas-related visits. Eighteen players spent two hours at the University of Maryland Hospital for children. Nineteen players hosted a party for 70 children at the Ravens Courage House at St. Vincent in Timonium. Another 20 players took part in a party for 250 members of the Pleasant View Garden Boys and Girls club.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Chicago Bears
Site: Soldier Field, Chicago
When: Sunday, 1: 01 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Pick 'em
Pub Date: 12/16/98